Monday, August 09, 2010

“Lord of the Changing Winds”, by Rachel Neumeier (Orbit)

Reviewed by Alyssa Mackenzie

Untitled-8 An uneven beginning to a new series, The Griffin Mage

The desert winds have come to the village of Minas Ford. Griffins, creatures of fire, have appeared in a burning haze – searing the sky a blinding white and scorching the earth to parched, barren sand. These majestic beasts, half-lion, half-eagle, spread the arid desert wherever they roam.

Iaor, the King of Feierabiand, will not tolerate the destruction of his people’s farmland. He means to drive the griffins from his domain – whether by negotiation or brute force.

But not all those who encounter the griffins fear them. Kes, a timid village girl, is summoned to heal the King of the Griffins himself. She will discover her affinity with these creatures, and come to realize that the menace they flee is even more deadly than the blazing fires of the desert.

Lord of the Changing Winds is the first in The Griffin Mage Trilogy. Neumeier does not simply use this first book to lay the groundwork for the rest of the trilogy: it has an eventful and intriguing plot that stands in its own right. The narrative alternates between the stories of Kes and Bertaud, a courtier with close personal ties to the king. Kes’s journey is one of personal discovery: previously isolated and uncertain of herself, she discovers through her interactions with the griffins powers and abilities she could not have imagined. Bertaud, whose love for and loyalty to King Iaor has been one of the few constants in his life, finds himself forced to pursue unexpected paths in his effort to protect his king and his country.

The political situation that underlies the plot of the novel is complex and well-constructed. The arrival of the griffins in Feierabiand is ultimately tied to the expansionist ambitions of neighbouring Casmantium. As the novel progresses, we discover that not only Kes but also the griffins have been caught up in political conflict that has little to do with them, and is beyond their control.

Emerging through both Kes’s and Bertaud’s stories is the court of the griffins. Neumeier’s griffins are fascinating, described in terms that verge on lyrical, and their culture and nature are compellingly represented. They are beautiful, violent, generous, proud, and utterly unsentimental. The system of magic Neumeier has created is one based on the elements – humans, creatures of the earth, use earth magic, while the griffins draw their power from fire. The clash between these two elements colours every interaction between humans and griffins, and forms an important aspect of the plot.

Unfortunately, the novel suffers somewhat when it comes to pacing. The narrative alternates between the stories of Kes and Bertaud, offering different perspectives on the events as they unfold. However, the sharpness of the distinction between these two narrative threads tends to restrict the development of momentum in the plot, such that I did not find myself truly caught up in the story until the final hundred pages or so, when the two storylines became almost entirely intertwined. I found this to be particularly a problem with Kes’s storyline. Each her chapters seemed to cover discrete episodes, with less continuity between them than I would have liked, and occasionally with important revelations (such as the potential effect of her magical engagement with the griffins) occurring off-stage first.

I would also have liked more time to get acquainted with the everyday life of Feierabiand, and with Kes’s previous existence, before her engagement with the griffins began in earnest. As the novel and her involvement with the world of the griffins progresses, Kes undergoes many changes. These changes are important to the story, but because not as much attention is paid to what she’s changed from, we cannot get a proper appreciation of what she’s changed into. When the plot reaches its crisis point, the author tells us,

“She longed for a simpler, gentler time, for the girl she had been and the life she had owned before the griffins had come. A time when the only choices she had to make were simple, because they did not matter.”

However, because so little of the book is spent on Kes’s life prior to the arrival of the griffins (the novel begins with her first sighting of them), I felt that Kes’s nostalgia for her old life did not have the impact it could have had. Her two most important human relationships – with her sister Tesme, whom she leaves behind to join the griffins, and with Jos, whose love for her makes him, by the end of the novel, her only remaining tie to the human world – are not as well-developed as they could have been, and might have benefited from more time devoted to Kes’s ‘old’ life.

Overall, I found Lord of the Changing Winds to be an uneven read – the pacing and structure prevent it from being as good as it could have been, but the imaginative work that has gone into it is clearly impressive.

The second book, Land of the Burning Sands, is out now; the third, Law of the Broken Earth, is scheduled for release in December 2010. It will be interesting to see how the story and characters develop as the series progresses.

Also try: Maggie Furey, Naomi Novik, Trudi Canavan

1 comment:

  1. I had a harder time connecting with Kes. Maybe if I had seen more of her life before the griffins I would have felt better of a connection with her. I did start to connect with her in the second half of the book.

    This is a nicely done review. I really enjoyed the griffins as well. I just got done and reviewed book 2, Land of the Burning Sands.

    Thank you for the great review.